26 April 2012
The people of Hasankeyf are hardly stranger to invasion. The ancient city, located on the banks of the Tigris River in the Batman province of southeastern Turkey, has fallen under the rule of Romans, Byzantines, Ayyubids, Mongols and Ottomans.
Now, however, the threat to Hasankeyf comes not from invading armies, but rather from a deluge of water from the planned Ilisu Dam, water that threatens to submerge the entire city.
Like much of the southeast, Hasankeyf is home to a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Assyrian Christians. Many of the ancient caves that housed mosques and churches over the ages still exist, as do elaborate tombs and the remains of the citadel. Some archaeologists estimate that the area has been continually inhabited for around 10,000 years.
“You can compare it perhaps to Machu Picchu in terms of its historical legacy,” Defne Akman, an environmental activist concerned with the preservation of Hasankeyf, told SES Türkiye.
If the plans for the Ilisu Dam come to pass, about 50,000 residents will be displaced and millennia of history will be hidden underwater.
Idris Kartal, a local tour guide and Hasankeyf native, says that though the dam may be imminent, fears and worries regarding government development in the area have been around for decades.
"My grandmother died when she was 100 years old, and I can remember that she told me this when I was just a child: 'Son, when we were still living in the caves near the castle, this dam was still an issue'," Kartal told SES Türkiye.
This perpetual worry, he believes, led to decades of uncertainty in the region, and caused many young people to move away in search of better opportunities than they felt Hasankeyf could offer.
Now that public housing is being constructed for the local population to occupy once the dam is complete, Kartal feels there is little hope for saving Hasankeyf.
"Nothing was done to stop the dam for Hasankeyf," Kartal said, adding, "Hasankeyf has always been treated as a political favour for politicians, and the people who suffered most from this have been the locals."
Though Kartal and others may feel their lives and homes have been abandoned to theýr fates, this is not entirely the case.
Greenpeace Mediterranean has treated hydroelectric development in the region as a tertiary issue, prioritising instead issues of nuclear power and oil.
"Though we don't have any projects on this topic, we do have a position," Uygar Ozesmi, the executive director of Greenpeace Mediterranean told SES Türkiye, explaining that the organisation ideologically supports local struggles against hydroelectric development.
Far more active in the battle against dam construction is Turkey’s Nature Association, which has been fighting to save Hasankeyf and other vulnerable areas throughout Anatolia for years.
Dicle Tuba Kilic, the Nature Association’s Hasankeyf campaign co-ordinator, emphasises that despite the fears of people like Kartal, there is still time to save the area.
"The struggle we've undertaken at the Nature Association continues with the same level of energy and belief," she told SES Türkiye. "Even if it takes years, we will stop the Ilisu Dam project."
Even if the dam is completed, Kilic says, they will fight for its subsequent closure.
The Ilisu Dam and its potential effects on the region are one part of a larger problem of resource management in Turkey that the Nature Association is trying to rectify.
"The most important threat to Turkey’s biological riches are the impositions on the water system, dams in particular," Kilic said. "The large dams destroy the most fertile soil, lower the quality of water going to agricultural areas by preventing rivers from transporting oxygen and nutrients, and lower our quality of life by harming the water cycle and the climate."
While conservationists emphasise the environmental damage that the dam will cause, local people mourn what they fear will be a passing of a unique way of life.
"The most painful thing is that a culture and a language are about to disappear here," Kartal said. "I'm worried that with the dam, we’ll see the disappearance of the local people’s Arabic dialect, as well as their traditions and customs."